Exploring Shrimp Cocktail: The History, Original Recipe, and Spin-Offs

Updated on September 25, 2018
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Exploring food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes... one ingredient at a time.

A Saucy Tale

There are many stories of the who/when/where of the first shrimp cocktail. A few of them are so horrifying I won’t mention them here (let’s suffice to say that it deals with drunkenness and seagulls in New Jersey).

Some say it began during Prohibition—hey, the bartenders needed to find something to put in those unused gin glasses.

My favorite tale (and probably the one that's most believable) takes place in San Francisco where a gold prospector “ordered a plate of oysters and dipped them in ketchup.”

One might assume that either (1) he discovered that he really didn’t like the texture of oysters and used the sauce as a means of choking them down; or, more likely (2) that the pearls of the sea were a tad bit past their prime and so the ketchup disguised some of their funkiness.

Anyhow, oysters became “any type of seafood” and, of course, cooked shrimp are just so cute and easy to eat with your fingers. Why not use shrimp?

And Then, Things Got Even Spicier

According to an article written in the Orlando Sentinel (November 12, 1987)

In 1893 the chef at Delmonico's, Charles Ranhofer, compiled The Epicurean, a book described as a ''Franco-American culinary encyclopedia.'' He suggested a mixture of vinegar, hot peppers, garlic, shallots, lemon juice and tomatoes as a relish for cold meats, fish and oysters.

What Are We Waiting For?

Do you want to know what constitutes the perfect shrimp cocktail?

Do you want to know how to actually make that perfect shrimp cocktail?

And, would you like to find out if you can go a bit rogue and create other "perfectly" acceptable alternatives?

Don't touch that dial. I have all of those for you right here.

First, let's look at the components of a perfect shrimp cocktail.

Court Bouillon

This is the poaching liquid that not only cooks but flavors your shrimp. They will spend so little time in there (it’s a quick dip, not a luxurious soak in the tub) you want to make those moments count. Here's an easy recipe:

Ingredients

  • 10 cups water
  • 1 lemon, thinly sliced
  • 1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 12 whole black peppercorns
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt or kosher salt

Instructions

  1. Place all ingredients in a stockpot. Bring to a boil over high heat and then reduce to a gentle simmer. Allow to simmer for 5 minutes.

Ice Bath

Hot and then cold. I don't intend to scare you away, but shrimps are somewhat temperamental (think of them as the Kardashians of the sea world). You will cook them in a hot bath (the court bouillon) but then immediately plunge them into ice to stop the cooking process. That's important.

Timing is everything.

You can't cook the shrimp and then fuss around in your kitchen finding a bowl, filling it with ice, and so on. That ice bath has to be ready and waiting in the wings for the final act.

Find a large bowl. Put some ice in it. (I don't care if it's cubes, rectangles, or whatever shape. Just no popsicles, OK?)

Shrimp

This is the star of the show and the place where you don't want to economize. Your shrimp cocktail can only be as good as are the shrimp from which it is made. Most of the shrimp sold in the U.S. market is frozen. Look for wild-caught (which tends to have much better flavor than farm raised). Failing that, your next best option is “sustainably farmed.”

If you have access to fresh, for goodness sake do so (even if it costs more).

If none of the above are available, I’d 86 shrimp cocktail from the menu.

By the way, in case you were wondering, size DOES matter. The little buggers aren’t worth it, and the humongous ones are just too much of a good thing. Look for 16-20 per pound.

Clean them (there's a video below that shows you exactly how to do that). When they are ready, the next step (of course) is cooking them. Let's assume that you have prepared the court bouillon (above) and that it has simmered for 5 minutes.

You're ready to cook your shrimp!

  1. Retrieve 2 cups of liquid from the stockpot and reserve.
  2. Place the shrimp in the simmering stockpot.
  3. They will cook in just a few minutes. Your first sign is that they have turned bright pink. Take one out and prod it with your finger. If it feels slightly firm, it's done. If it's still "squishy" it needs a moment more. BUT, don't wait until it is very firm. That's over-done.
  4. Next drain and place in the ice bath. If you have just a handful of shrimp you can easily retrieve them from the stockpot with a skimmer. But if you are cooking quite a few, dump the whole thing into a colander to immediately remove them from the hot water.
  5. And then, just as quickly place them on the ice and pour the 2 cups of reserved bouillon on top. That is the final step, but it is vitally important. If you merely remove your shrimp from the court bouillon and don’t plunge them in ice they will hold residual heat and continue to cook. Overcooked shrimp are rubbery shrimp, and no one wants that. So quickly place them in a bowl that is filled with ice (not just ice water), and then ladle in a spoonful or two of the bouillon so that they will continue to soak up those flavorful lemony-herby flavors.

Cocktail Sauce

There are so many recipes on the internet (and in cookbooks, if you're old-school) for cocktail sauce. But this one, from Bon Appetit magazine, is easy and (in my humble opinion), the best.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup chili sauce
  • 3/4 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 3/4 teaspoon hot sauce (such as Tabasco sauce)

Now, If You Want Something Different

Other Shrimp Cocktail Recipe Ideas

I really like the classic, original shrimp cocktail. But maybe you want to go outside of the box, explore a new realm, create a new paradigm. Here are some interesting recipes I found for you.

Spicy Warm Shrimp Cocktail

Years ago Curtis Stone had a cooking show on the Food Network called "Take Home Chef." He was a young, hunky Australian chef (love that accent) who would:

  • Randomly select a home cook at a grocery store.
  • Ask if she had plans for making dinner.
  • Help her select the perfect ingredients.
  • And then go to her home and help her create that amazing meal.

(Insert the swoon emoji here.)

Well, I was always too old for him, and he's now a married man with a beautiful family. But I still think he's cute, and he still is a great chef. Of course, that was always the fascination {{wink, wink}}.

Here is his recipe for a spicy warm shrimp cocktail.

Garlic Roasted Shrimp Cocktail

This Garlic Roasted Shrimp Cocktail recipe is bursting with flavors you don’t get in the traditional shrimp cocktail. The garlic and crushed red pepper give it a bit of spice. The homemade cocktail sauce also has a little kick with horseradish.

Asian Roasted Shrimp Cocktail

Heather Christo is a nationally-recognized authority on an allergy-free lifestyle with two published books and two James Beard award nominations. She has had featured articles in major publications and has appeared on national television shows (TODAY, Food Network, Good Morning America Health, Access Hollywood Live, HGTV and DIY networks, Rescue my Renovation, and many regional news shows).

Her blog contains hundreds of delicious and satisfying foods created for those with allergies or who wish to reduce or eliminate meat from their diet. If that sounds boring, please take a moment to visit her page. Her photographs are absolutely stunning. It is said that we first eat with our eyes, and Heather's blog is indeed a feast. Her Asian-inspired roasted shrimp cocktail is a perfect example.

Three-Ingredient Shrimp Cocktail Dip

Tracey's shrimp cocktail dip brings back memories of Thanksgiving years ago at my sister-in-law's house. My SIL always served cream cheese with cocktail sauce and baby shrimp as an appetizer. This dip has all of those flavors combined into one quick-to-fix dish for fresh veggies, crackers or (even) potato chips.

Mexican Shrimp Cocktail Stuffed Avocados

These shrimp-stuffed avocados make a light meal, perfect for those swelting hot summer evenings when the very last thing you want to eat is something heavy. Thank you to Marzia (LittleSpiceJar) for the wonderful recipe.

Vegan Shrimp Cocktail

I could not complete this article without posting a recipe for my younger daughter. Over 20 years ago, she decided that she no longer wanted to consume meat, a dietary choice that was more difficult to embrace two decades ago. There are tastes that she still fondly remembers from her childhood, and shrimp cocktail is one of them.

Most of the "remembered" flavor comes from the cocktail sauce; the texture of cooked shrimp in this vegan recipe has been replaced here with artichoke hearts.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Lum

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      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        hahahahaha

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        2 weeks ago from Central Florida

        Wow, talk about mise en place!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        OK, it's in the queue (however, I have articles written for now through December 12).

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        2 weeks ago from Central Florida

        There's only one way to find out, Linda. I would love to see an article on Dungeness crab.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Shauna, thank you for this copycat recipe. With ground bay leaves I can understand why this seasoning is so popular and well-loved. That would certainly impart amazing flavor.

        I absolutely agree that the only crab worth talking about is Dungeness. It has a wonderful sweet taste that surpasses any other; even Alaska king crab is not as good (in my humble opinion).

        Should I do an article on Dungeness crab, or do you think the audience would be too limited?

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        2 weeks ago from Central Florida

        Linda, Old Bay is my go-to for boiling shrimp and crab. It's in my pantry at all times (I love shell fish!). However, its ingredients are as closely guarded as The Colonel's. Here's what's on the side of the can: celery salt (salt, celery seed), spices (including red pepper, black pepper, paprika). That's it! But when you taste it, there's so much more to it. I found this copycat online that expounds on the "spices", courtesy of Chowhound:

        2 tbl ground bay leaves

        2 tbl celery salt

        1 tbl ground mustard

        2 tsp ground black pepper

        2 tsp ground ginger

        2 tsp paprika

        1 tsp ground white pepper

        1 tsp ground nutmeg

        1 tsp ground cloves

        1 tsp ground allspice

        1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

        1/2 tsp ground mace

        1/2 tsp ground cardamom

        I have to tell you I love crab. Although I've been raised on blue crab (East coast), my absolute favorite comes from your neck of the woods, Dungeness crab. Whenever it's on sale here, I buy it because I know I'll treat myself to this wonderful delicacy at some point in time. I boil it in Old Bay and serve it with a side cup of unsalted butter spiked with fresh lemon juice. Talk about salivary orgasm! OMG!

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        2 weeks ago from Central Florida

        I'll have to check my can when I get home, Linda. I'll get back to you. I'll also take a pic of my shrimper and email it to you.

      • manatita44 profile image

        manatita44 

        2 weeks ago from london

        Ha ha. Funny. No bloodshed, eh? Cool!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Manatita, no shrimp in the vegan recipe. Artichoke hearts are the stand-in. The flavor and texture of shrimp cocktail without bloodshed.

      • manatita44 profile image

        manatita44 

        2 weeks ago from london

        A very 'shrimpish' and colourful one, Linda. That vegan recipe at the end, are you saying it has shrimps also? Interesting!Have a great evening.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Shauna, I think I need to put that "shrimper" on my Christmas wish list. I cringe every time I have to pull out that vein (which is really the intestines in case you didn't know). I've seen/been aware of Old Bay seasoning forever, but have never used it. What are the ingredients?

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        2 weeks ago from Central Florida

        Linda, I have a handy-dandy tool I use for cleaning shrimp. It's aptly called a shrimper. It's got a long "nose" that you insert into the hole of the neck, push in while pulling up. The shell, feet and vein all come out in one fell swoop. Easy peasy! Or I buy them already cleaned with the tail on. Even easier!

        I boil my shrimp in Old Bay. Also easy peasy!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        That's a great question and I'll have an answer for you next week.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        2 weeks ago from USA

        A question for your Q&A series:

        I've never made fish much but my husband loves salmon. What's the best way to prepare it?

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Thank you, Pamela. You are indeed lucky. Right now I'd love a great big green salad with shrimp, avocado, black olives and some of that cocktail sauce. I appreciate your kind words and support.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        2 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

        Shrimp cocktail is one of my favorite dishes. Living in northern FL has its advantages. We can buy shrimp from the shrimp boats. I love your recipe and the other suggestions sound great. Thanks.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Mary, the roasted shrimp looks amazing, doesn't it? We are lucky enough to be able to get fresh (not farmed) shrimp on Hood Canal, not too far from us. Thanks for stopping by.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Eric, make yourself a big old salad with shrimp, avocado, and plenty of cilantro and I won't complain a bit. Sounds wonderful. I'm glad you got in so much good reading this morning. Have a wonderful day my friend.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Wow Mary, I can't imagine being able to pick my own fresh prawns anytime I'm in the mood. How wonderful for you.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        2 weeks ago from Ontario, Canada

        We used to love shrimp cocktails but we don’t bother to have them now. Most shrimp sold in North American groceries have lost most of its flavour. I’ll try the Asian roasted recipe you’ve included. That might just bring back our love for it.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        2 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        I am sorry you live in the depraved Northwest. Shrimp cocktail without Cilantro and Oregano? Lol! It must be a horseradish Ceviche. My boy and I just love it. I caught him just eating the cocktail sauce. South East Asia was not into dairy cows. They got (and not enough) calcium from Shrimp and the like shells. My wife likes them shell on, but my boy and I drink milk and eat oranges.

        I just love the "poaching" liquid stuff, thanks much.

        We have the best shrimp in every grocery store here. I am thinking a salad type deal with a cocktail sauce dressing.

        I have had a wonderful time with you this morning Linda. Wow 4 articles in one morning and I am charged up. Thank you for adding the spice of life.

      • Blond Logic profile image

        Mary Wickison 

        2 weeks ago from Brazil

        Our recent farming saga included buying 6 kilos of shrimp (fresh water) to grow on and sell. Turned out, they were small and flavorless.

        We are still toying with the idea of getting large fresh water Malaysian prawns. There is a man up the road that sells large saltwater prawns for about $7.00 a kilo. We have yet to buy any but now I have a good array of recipes to try.

        Thanks

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Bill, I think it is all in how they are fixed. Cook too long and you just have tasteless rubber. Yes, fall is definitely here. My basil on the front porch is looking quite pathetic.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

        Ya know, it's not that I dislike shrimp. I don't mind them at all. I've just never seen them as a big deal. Perhaps it's all in the sauce, you know? I suspect if I ate some that you prepared, I would love them.

        The perfect day coming up, my friend. The last hoorah of lovely weather. Enjoy!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Ohmygoodness Flourish. You made me laugh out loud with the "dead mermaids" quote (and boy, I needed that). My mom didn't "do" fish either. The closest we got was breaded fish sticks.

        Now, I love seafood but recognize that some (i.e. my younger daughter) are vegetarian or vegan and would love to have the taste without the slaughter.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        3 weeks ago from USA

        I love that you included vegan shrimp cocktail. Who knew? I have never eaten shrimp or much of any fish because I grew up with a mother who hated it and therefore didn’t cook it. I will always recall my daughter as a five year old peering into a huge display of shrimp at the grocery store in profound shock and dismay, shrieking, “Oh, no! Dead mermaids!”

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Hi Wesman - I'm so glad that you took the time to stop by and leave a comment. I agree with you that shrimp and avocado are a marriage made in Heaven. I too love cilantro, but did you know that those who don't (they say it tastes like soap) are not being fussy? They actually lack an enzyme that affects how some ingredients (like cilantro) are perceived.

      • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

        Wesman Todd Shaw 

        3 weeks ago from Kaufman, Texas

        I'm not actually Hispanic, but if you saw the way I eat, it would be easy to assume I was. Anyway, I'm in Texas, and so that certainly influences my culinary aesthetics.

        Whoever it was who invented the shrimp cocktail, well, I thank them from the bottom of my heart.

        I've always felt like shrimp and avocado go together like peas and carrots. I'm of the persuasion that also likes to have a lot of cilantro in my shrimp cocktail. I realize not everyone likes cilantro, but I like LOTS of it.

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